Artificial turf winning over South American football

Boca Juniors' Sergio Araujo fights for the ball Argentina's Boca Juniors train on artificial turf and would consider switching the stadium from grass

Purists may shudder, and groundsmen may lose their jobs, but plastic football pitches are growing in popularity in Brazil and Argentina.

Many of the biggest clubs in both countries now train on artificial turf, including Boca Juniors and River Plate in Argentina, and Corinthians and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

While none of the big teams have yet to replace the natural grass in their actual stadiums, the makers of plastic pitches in both countries are quietly confident that this will happen in the future.

At the Soccerex business of football convention in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil's largest manufacturer of artificial turf, Soccer Grass, is out in force.

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In every regard it performs as well as natural grass - playability, comfort for the players, contact with the players”

End Quote Juan Pablo Pena Forbex

At its glitzy exhibition stand, which is naturally resplendent with the lush green of its product on the floor, video screens show Brazilian football greats Zico, Paulo Sergio and Ronaldinho talking about how much they love Soccer Grass.

Alessandro Oliveira, Soccer Grass director, is also proud to say that for the past two years its pitches have even been installed at the training centre of the Brazilian national team.

Meanwhile, at the other end of the exhibition hall, Soccer Grass's main Argentinian rival, Forbex, is also keen to talk about its successes.

Artificial turf is now big news - and big business - in Brazil and Argentina.

England ban

Such a development will likely horrify the average football fan in the UK, especially those old enough to remember the "green carpets" installed at four English clubs in the 1980s - QPR, Luton, Preston and Oldham.

These were eventually banned by the Football Association in 1988 after players had long complained that the artificial turf was too hard a surface, and increased the likelihood of injuries.

Meanwhile, supporters moaned that the ball bounced excessively and the surfaces did little to encourage an attractive passing game.

Yet world football's governing body Fifa has always maintained a more open mind, and in recent years has again given artificial turf its support, as long as it meets its set standards.

As a result, international matches can be played on plastic pitches, with Costa Rica and Russia being two countries to do so.

Alessandro Oliveira Alessandro Oliveira is a director of Brazil's largest manufacturer of artificial turf, Soccer Grass

Closer to home, European governing body Uefa allows artificial turf to be used for Champions League matches except the final. As Tottenham Hotspur experienced when they played away at Swiss side Young Boys in 2010.

And in England, two lower league teams - Wycombe Wanderers and Accrington Stanley - both recently said they would like to install plastic pitches in the future to cut costs and increase their revenues.

'Softer'

Mr Oliveira of Soccer Grass says artificial turf has returned to popularity because its standard has been transformed over the past decade.

"The product today is a world apart from the past," he says. "The plastic fibres are longer and softer, and as importantly, the underlay is made of rubber granules, so it is as soft to play on as a natural grass surface, and the ball moves and bounces in the same way.

"It is the same quality as natural grass.

Juan Pablo Pena, a director of Forbex, says that artificial turf no longer burns when players slide across it.

"In every regard it performs as well as natural grass - playability, comfort for the players, contact with the players.

"And unlike in the past, players can wear boots with studs."

Costing about $600,000 (£380,000) to install, Mr Pena says the commercial benefits of artificial turf are obvious and long-lasting.

"Firstly, it requires much less maintenance than natural grass," he says. "Perhaps most importantly, you don't have to water it, which can save football clubs a fortune, particularly those in hot countries.

"Yes, you do need to do some maintenance with plastic pitches - you need to brush them from time to time - but with a lifespan of eight to nine years, you save a fortune. And clubs can boost their revenues, because plastic pitches can be used 24 hours a day.

"The only problem we have is persuading teams to spend the initial $600,000."

'Players' support'

Yet will Argentinian and Brazilian football fans ever accept watching their beloved club sides - or even national teams - play on plastic?

Brazil training Brazil, which will host the 2014 World Cup, already train on artificial grass

Mr Oliveira says: "I think it is a possibility, because the clubs want their pitches to look as green and perfect as possible, and we provide that.

"Plus, the players are already very happy with our pitches, because they train on them week in, week out."

Mr Pena agrees. "The players are on side, now it is just a question of persuading the fans."

Santiago Tezanos Pinto, a spokesman for Argentinian side Boca Juniors, also believes it could ultimately happen.

"The club is always aware that we need to keep up with what is happening on the market," he says.

"Football has a lot of tradition, and is not into change, but it could happen in the future. If plastic pitches get installed at stadiums in Argentina, I think teams would have to do so as one."

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